#220 From s7istkn to dude ranches
December 14th, 2017
The Land on Which We Live: Life on the Cariboo Plateau, 70 Mile House to Bridge Lake
by Barbara MacPherson
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2017
$24.95 / 9781987915365
Reviewed by Harold Rhenisch
Barbara MacPherson has provided a popular oral history of the South Cariboo and North Bonaparte regions, stretching from 70 Mile House to Bridge Lake and including Green Lake, Canim Lake, Clearwater, 59 Mile House, 83 Mile House, and many ranches in the Cariboo Plateau.
While focussing on ranch life, MacPherson does consider the continuing presence of the Shuswap (Secwepemc) Nation, specifically the reserves of the Canim Lake (Tsq’escenemc) and Canoe Creek and Dog Creek (Stswecem’c Xgat’tem) people.
After finding much to criticize, reviewer Harold Rhenisch concludes, “The arrival of this book in the year of a resurgent Indigenous culture is timely. It’s arrival during the tragedy of wild fire is propitious, as it covers the period of early fire suppression that helped to exclude the Tsq’escenemc from the land and laid down the primary conditions for those fires. It is an invaluable document.”
Rhenisch argues that the Secwepemc were not simply displaced from their land and relegated to reserves. Instead, they traded and worked for settlers as cowboys and agricultural labourers on “an extensive swathe of [their] traditional territory.” Indeed, Rhenisch finds enough evidence in The Land on Which We Live to suggest that the Secwepemc “successfully transferred their Indigenous knowledge of the land into a set of marketable skills within a new society.” — Ed.
Barbara Macpherson has collected family anecdotes, stories and oral knowledge of Canadian and European pioneers in British Columbia’s South Cariboo and Bonaparte Plateau. “The land on which we live” of her title is not a geographic space but a network of social relationships.
Caucasian settlers play the important roles. For example, MacPherson recounts the story of the Mobb Family’s arrival at the railway access point of Ashcroft around 1920, deep in the Thompson grasslands to the south:
They arrived in Ashcroft, hungry and tired, and went to eat breakfast at a local café. As they sat around the table, they heard a commotion and looked up to see the Chinese cook bursting out of the kitchen, chasing one of the customers around the café with a big knife. Mattie was horrified. ‘What a country!’ She exclaimed. ‘They kill men before breakfast’ (p. 63).
It’s a highly-polished, self-aggrandizing tale that would sit well around a campfire. There’s nothing in it about the humanity of this cook, why he might have been so angry that he burst out of the kitchen wielding a knife, who the other Chinese in the region might be, or what kind of person might tell such a patronizing story until it became highly-polished and no doubt funny — and brittle — as hell.
It’s not the book’s only missed opportunity. A book actually about the South Cariboo might describe aspen groves, extensive wetlands, uplifted volcanic plutons, river valleys winding below the volcanic escarpments, wildflower meadows, red dogwoods bursting with moose, old growth fir savannahs, glacial rubble (lots of that; this was the continental divide during the Ice Age), high country lakes darkened by spruce and black cottonwood, waterfalls, grasslands swept by fire, and so much more. It might place settlers and ranchers within the contexts of these environments and what they were able to support.
Instead, MacPherson gives a tantalizing history of grazing on salt pans and water grass (sedge) meadows, yet without exploration of the extirpated beavers that created those meadows, or of the narrative of trade in beaver pelts that cleared the way for ranching. If the beavers hadn’t been trapped out, after all, to purchase rifles to defend against invasion from the south, the survival of cattle in dry summers would have been impossible. That many of the settlers raising those cattle came, innocently enough, from that south is sobering.
Similarly, MacPherson mentions logging, yet not the big trees and open sight lines of the time of European settlement, how they came about, how they were maintained, and how they were lost. In their place are a few introductory pages about Secwepemc culture, and many descriptions of distances and isolation. It’s hard to imagine that the Secwepemc felt isolated here.
Remember, however, that this is dude ranch country. The Flying U Ranch, named after Bertha Bower’s 1914 popular western novel of the same name set in Montana, has been operating as a guest ranch on Green Lake since 1917.
In its heyday, it had its own dance hall, its own rodeo, and nightly story-telling sessions around cowboy campfires. It’s here that MacPherson’s storytelling about the harshness of the land and the toughness of the local people facing it are part of South Cariboo ranching culture.
Mind you, that culture is a fiction, created by a desire to hear stories and a desire to tell them in the manner of a Montana Western, making this cultural space called “land” more like a live-in-it-yourself novel. A study of how much such mythology influenced later settlers to pursue the often thankless struggle to raise cattle in a high forest hostile to them would have complemented this book.
Neither does MacPherson mention other negative pressures on ranching at this time: the consolidation of small ranches into large ones due to aggressive range acquisition or market dominance, recurring grasshopper plagues, often blamed on Indigenous peoples rather than their real cause, overgrazing, and so on.
There is no doubt that the people who remained were tough, resourceful and resilient. There is also no doubt that the social pressures they faced were intense. MacPherson does do a solid job of making it clear that the people who left were as honourable as those who stayed, and did so in reaction to very real stresses.
Even so, MacPherson overlooks what might be the most profound story she uncovered in her research: a hint of a strong dependence of her hard-working ranching and service community upon the scarcely mentioned Secwepemc.
“The Tsq’escenemc [Canim Lake Band],” she writes, had “lived during the winter in underground houses known as s7istkn.”
A description of houses would be an odd way to describe an Indigenous people, except that MacPherson describes later settlers by their living spaces too: roadhouses, dude ranches and kitchens, community picnics, schools, and forays by children and men out from them on hunting, trapping, fishing and ranching expeditions, and the work of women in their kitchens to sew them back together when they got hurt out there.
In other words, this is a book of interiors, told from a woman’s point of view. Fair enough. We can use more of those — an almost unlimited number. Still, this tight focus makes it difficult for MacPherson to put those interiors into context. Indigenous people, for example, become presented as displaced by an energetic White presence. That’s questionable.
MacPherson spends five pages detailing the extirpation of the Tsq’escenemc from land that, by her own admission, they once used extensively for fishing, gathering, hunting and dwelling. She briefly notes four great population pressures: smallpox, the restrictions on movement of the Canada Indian Act, the privatization of land (and the corollary lack of access), and heavy hunting and fishing pressures by new European residents.
The book would have benefited by naming three of these as the systemic racial policies that they were. The innocence of the settlers aside, if this hadn’t been a racial story, there would have been no line drawn, whether in the mind or with barbed wire, between Indigenous or White access to land, but there was. Legally, this is really still Tsq’escenemc land.
This unacknowledged line hides something extraordinary. MacPherson tells the story of Roy Eden, who settled around Green Lake in 1907, with the introduction that “members of the Stswecem’c Tgat’tem [Stswecem’c Xgat’tem or Canoe Creek] Band also mingled with the newcomers.”
With those few words, she presents a proud tradition. For generations, Indigenous men were the most valuable, knowledgeable and common employees in the Interior. They had successfully transferred their Indigenous knowledge of the land into a set of marketable skills within a new society. That’s toughness and resilience worthy of MacPherson’s vision. It’s not present.
The negative pressure that ended that pride was residential schooling. That tragedy was set in place by racialized Federal government pressure during the time period covered by this book. The resulting absence of Stswecem’c Xgat’tem or Tsq’escenemc children and future labourers created opportunity that allowed immigrant culture to develop in the forms which MacPherson chronicles.
That’s not precisely the story of a people being squeezed out by the presence of newcomers, which makes this not precisely a story about the harshness of the land.
There’s more. As Eden related, “Most of them [a Stswecem’c Xgat’tem haying crew] used to trade at the 70 Mile Store [in 1907].” That is a powerful expression of a culture still connecting across, and using, an extensive swathe of its traditional territory.
That’s remarkable. The 70 Mile Store is fifty kilometres from the Canoe Creek Indian Reserve, yet pay for work that enabled ranchers to succeed was translated into usable goods there. Such a mercantile transfer across distance doesn’t negate the idea of continued use of the land. It affirms it.
Eden’s haying crew of seventeen contained fifteen Stswecem’c Xgat’tem men. If these proportions were common, the mercantile culture of 70 Mile House, an important part of MacPherson’s book and her region, would likely have floundered without them.
Given that the store was probably not the only one in a similar position in the British Columbia of the time, research extending this theme, by scholars with access to greater resources, could well transform our understanding of the development of British Columbia within its Indigenous context.
That’s the way it is with books of local oral history: they contain remarkable material, which can be developed into broad narratives, which can in turn illuminate the histories that originally contained them.
The Land on Which We Live is no exception. It gathers the stories of 197 settlers and settler families between 1871 and 1959, many from personal interviews. There are warm stories here, stories of love, death and heartbreak, illness and freedom, as well as stories of self-reliance and, at times, plain orneriness. Good stuff for a cup of coffee around a Cariboo campfire.
MacPherson writes passionately and sympathetically. Very few of her settlers had any idea of the kind of folly they were getting themselves in for. If telling stories of their strength and grandeur was a way to resist the isolation of ranching in a region more than a little unsuited for it, that is a testament to the human spirit as good as any other.
If there is hard material, dealing more with strife or cruelty than supportive family values, she quickly explains it away. That’s not something common to books of history, but it’s standard behaviour in isolated ranchland communities. It has to be. Those are the characteristics of a folk culture working hard to maintain family and community solidarity.
Broad cultural disconnects cannot be resolved by a book of this kind. It is, however, such books, with their otherwise next to impossible access and with deep sympathy for unique community attributes, that can lead to larger, more inclusive understandings.
The arrival of this book in the year of a resurgent Indigenous culture is timely. It’s arrival during the tragedy of wild fire is propitious, as it covers the period of early fire suppression that helped to exclude the Tsq’escenemc from the land and laid down the primary conditions for those fires.
It is an invaluable document.
Harold Rhenisch was raised in the grasslands of the Similkameen Valley and has written some thirty books from the Southern Interior since 1974. He won the George Ryga Prize for The Wolves at Evelyn (Brindle & Glass, 2006), a memoir of German immigrant life from the Similkameen to the Bulkley valleys. His other grasslands books are the Cariboo meditation Tom Thompson’s Shack (New Star, 1999) and the Similkameen orchard memoir, Out of the Interior (Ronsdale, 1993). He lived for fifteen years in the South Cariboo and has worked closely with the photographer Chris Harris on his Cariboo-Chilcotin books published by Country Lights: Spirit in the Grass (2008), Motherstone (2010), and Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2016), as well as The Bowron Lakes (2006), and he writes the blog Okanagan-Okanogan: One Country without Borders, from his home in Vernon. For seven years, he has toured the grasslands of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho while working on Commonage, a history of the Okanagan region set in its American context, highlighting the American history of Father Charles Pandosy and situating the roots of the Commonage land claim in the North Okanagan in American colonial practice in Old Oregon.
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